The Reds signed Orlando Cabrera to a free agent contract in the off season in an effort to strengthen one of the Reds’ biggest offseason question marks; that is, who plays shortstop or maybe the question was actually whether Paul Janish would hit enough to be the regular shortstop?

Janish was the default regular after oft-hurt Alex Gonzalez was dealt to the Red Sox in a post-trade deadline deal for minor leaguer Kris Negron last August. The Reds have been searching for a shortstop since the retirement of Barry Larkin following the 2004 season. Felipe Lopez gave us one good offensive season in 2005, but we’ve since gone through Gonzalez, Royce Clayton, Jeff Keppinger, Ray Olmedo, Juan Castro, Danny Richar, Enrique Cruz, William Bergolla, Rich Aurilia, Pedro Lopez, Jerry Hairston Jr. , Adam Rosales, Drew Sutton, and even Brandon Phillips has played there since Larkin retired. We even had current Reds’ shortstop Orlando Cabrera’s brother, Jolbert Cabrera, stand there for nine games in 2008.

I don’t know why, but I’m hearing Johnny Cash‘s “I’ve Been Everywhere” in the background; or maybe it’s REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It;” maybe it’s Billy Joel‘s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” I don’t know, but…

Am I the only one missing Barry Larkin?

Anyway, Janish is an outstanding defensive shortstop. The 2010 edition of “The Bill James Handbook” rates Janish as having saved 13 runs more than the average shortstop in 2009, which would rank him seventh in the major leagues (the leader was the Pirates’ Jack Wilson who saved 32 runs more than average according to their matrix). Janish accomplished this having only played 82 games at shortstop and only starting 63 of those 82. That’s really quite amazing.

However, Paul’s not a hitter and he’s not young. Last season, in his age 26 season, he batted .211 with one homer and a .601 OPS, which equates to a 59 OPS+ rating. Janish had 21 doubles in part-time work, but a 59 OPS+ rating means his hitting was worth 59% of the average major league hitter last year. That’s a huge obstacle to overcome, and since he was 26 years old last year, there’s not much room for growth. Hitters’ peak seasons typically come during the ages of 26-29. He may improve some, but its’ unlikely that he’s going to get that much better (see the article “Prospects or Suspects” from the other day).

So, the Reds went and signed Orlando Cabrera, who’s a proven major league shortstop. Cabrera is a two-time Gold Glover and finished 15th in the American League Most Valuable Player voting as recently as 2007 when he batted .301 with 86 RBI for the lost Angels of Anaheim in Los Angeles (or whatever marketing scheme they’re calling themselves these days). Cabrera is the anti-Gonzalez and anti-Larkin; he seems to never miss a game after having played 153, 155, 161, and 160 games over the last four seasons at ages 31-34.

Cabrera gets the bat on the ball, rarely strikes out, has doubles “power” (ahem, doubles power?), can sacrifice bunt, and even hits sacrifice flies (led the AL in three of the last four seasons—Marty Brennaman would be proud). But, oh boy, can he make outs. He’s led the American League in outs made the past two seasons (512 and 509), and even finished third in outs made in his big 2007 year.

Why does that matter? Because outs are a team’s currency; it’s their budget. Former Orioles manager great Earl Weaver would not use the sacrifice bunt because he didn’t want to give away an out. Despite batting .289 last year (which sounds great), Cabrera averaged making three outs per game. His OBP was .316; I don’t care that he gets the bat on the ball, if he’s batting second he’ll be wasting the team’s money (budget=outs). And before somebody tells me those are “productive outs” let me tell you he was fourth in the American League in double plays grounded into last year (22). Cabrera used to have some speed, but here’s his stolen base totals the last four years: 27, 20, 19, 13. The speed’s gone.

Reds management has talked about improving overall team defense. Those were the reasons given for trading Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion to get Scott Rolen and anyone except Dunn in LF. Jonny Gomes isn’t any better than Dunn in LF; Laynce Nix is a gifted fielder, as are Chris Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, and Jay Bruce. In fact, James’s Handbook rates the Reds as having the second most efficient defense in the National League behind the league champion Phillies. That had a lot to do with the improved outfield defense and the play of Janish, Rolen, and Phillips.

So, where does Cabrera fit into the equation? He, like Alex Gonzalez before him, comes with a good glove reputation. But, like AGon before him, I believe we’ve missed the boat on Cabrera’s glove.

Orlando Cabrera is baseball age 35. You can count the number of shortstops on two hands in baseball history who’ve played regularly at a star level at age 35. There’s Luke Appling, Luis Aparicio, Barry Larkin, Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel, Ozzie Smith, and Honus Wagner. Cal Ripken‘s last shortstop year came at age 35; Pee Wee Reese played well through age 36. Miguel Tejada was 35 last season; there…that’s ten. I did a search on every player that played shortstop in 75% of its teams games at age 35, and that’s your list. There were others who played shortstop at this age, but they all hit about the same as Paul Janish did last year.

Why do I mention this? Because defense is usually the first tool to decline as a player ages. We like to say the experience and knowledge of the players gives the veteran expertise on positioning and shortcuts in the game, but , let’s face it, players are moved off shortstop as they age because they just aren’t as quick as they used to be. Whether it’s Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, Rico Petrocelli, Joe Cronin, Alex Rodriguez, Vern Stephens, Roy Smalley, Toby Harrah, or Cal Ripken, Jr. (have I covered enough eras?), they get moved because they can’t supply adequate-enough defense at a defensive-first position (offensive era or no offensive era).

According to Bill James’s 2010 Handbook, Cabrera was dead last in defensive performance in shortstop. The matrix used by James shows that Cabrera allowed 33 runs more to score than the average shortstop. That wasn’t just last; it was last by a lot….Yuniesky Betancourt was second from last with minus-19, and the other 35 year old guy, Tejada, was third from last with minus-16. Baseball Prospectus‘s new book says that Cabrera allowed 13 more runs to score than the average shortstop while playing only 99 games in Oakland (BP says he was dead on average while with Minnesota for a yearly total of -13). And, before someone throws up the one season of defensive metrics don’t mean anything flag, James’s studies show that Cabrera is fourth from the bottom for the past three years, too, and that includes his Gold Glove year of 2007. To be fair, no doubt last year’s performance affected this three year cumulative totals.

Give Cabrera credit; he’s been a good enough shortstop for all these years to earn the right to keep playing. And, parts of Cabrera’s negative numbers are due to his ability to stay healthy. He plays lots of innings at shortstop because he stays healthy and gets more opportunities. Unfortunately, those opportunities may not be an advantage to our team at this point in his career…maybe Janish needs to be entering the game in the seventh inning.

Shortstop is a young man’s position. I tracked the shortstops for all World Series teams since 1990. The average age for the shortstops on those World Series teams was 27.7. The oldest were Derek Jeter, last year, at age 35, and Walt Weiss, 35, who was a part-time starter for the Braves back in 1999. Mike Bordick was a part-time shortstop at age 34 for the Mets in 2000. Next were some 31’s: Red Sox’ Julio Lugo in 2007, Cardinals’ David Eckstein in 2006, Diamondbacks’ Tony Womack in 2001, and Blue Jays’ Tony Fernandez in 1993.

Oh, did I mention that, of the past-30 shortstops I mentioned above, only one (soon to be two with Jeter) played full time the next season for that team? Jeter will return for the Yankees this year, but only Womack played shortstop full time the next season for his respective team (Weiss played 80 games for the Braves before retiring at season’s end).

So, I checked further for more average ages:

World Series winners since 1990: 27.6
World Series runners up since 1990: 28.4
League championship teams since 2000: 27.7
National League champions since 2000: 27.5
National League runners-up since 2000: 26.4
American League runners-up since 2000: 27.0
Every Reds World Series team: 26.8

Does anyone else see the pattern here?

It seems clear to me that our team needs a young shortstop to compete. The Reds say they needed a vocal leader in the clubhouse and that Cabrera offers that dimension (I guess Rolen’s “quiet leadership” wasn’t inspiring enough). The Reds are Cabrera’s seventh team in seven years. In fact, Cabrera’s included twice in my study above…the Red Sox acquired him at age 29 to replace 31 year old Pokey Reese to win the World Series in 2004 and the Angels signed him as a free agent for the 2005 season when they were AL runners-up.

For the record, I don’t think the Cabrera signing is the end of the world; I don’t think the Reds are really ready to compete just yet, so Cabrera could be a bridge to the future. What concerns me is where are the replacements? Zack Cozart is a good field, no-hit guy who should be in AAA this year. In AA behind Cozart is Kris Negron (acquired for AGon), but Negron is not listed on anyone’s prospect list. During the winter, the Reds were trumpeting their minor league shortstop prospects, but they’re buried pretty well deep in the minors. Miguel Rojas is yet another “good field, no hit” player; Mariekson Gregorius may be the opposite (good hit, no field); and young athletic Billy Hamilton may actually be a centerfielder by trade. How long had we known that Larkin was going to retire? And, isn’t filling this position rather important to the team’s future?

Maybe I’m spoiled and want too much. The Reds have had sixty years of quality shortstop play in Barry Larkin, Dave Concepcion, Leo Cardenas, Roy McMillan, and Eddie Miller. If we had one more real outfield stick we could play Janish at shortstop and let his defense talk. But since our offense is now so poor, we sign a shortstop that seems to be offensive-minded but really isn’t and, what’s worse, is the exact type of hitter our manager doesn’t need to have. Dusty Baker will bat him second and Cabrera will make outs. Cabrera doesn’t make out the lineup card, but Dusty should never have been batting AGon or Janish second last year either.

One thing’s clear to me…as long as our current shortstops are batting second, we won’t be clogging the bases for our best hitters like Joey Votto. But, isn’t that what top of the order hitters are supposed to do? So, that the Reds can score runs? And, if the Reds aren’t scoring runs don’t they need to stop the other team from scoring?